Rebels without a childhood in Sri Lanka war

By Celia W. Dugger, New York Times, USA, September 11, 2000


Renuka, a 13-year-old wisp of a girl, said she is afraid she will be scolded because she chose not to swallow her cyanide capsule. Recruited at age 11 by ethnic Tamil rebels to fight for a separate state, she lay wounded on the front lines of Sri Lanka's civil war six days ago, surrounded by the blasted bodies of three other insurgents who were on duty with her when mortar fire hit their sentry post.

But rather than kill herself to avoid capture as her superiors in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had ordered, Renuka said she wrapped her bloody chest in a sarong and waited for the soldiers from the Sri Lankan Army. "I didn't want to die," she said in a thin, quavering voice during an interview at an army detention camp here. "And I'm not going back to the L.T.T.E. They will threaten me and scold me and ask why I didn't take the cyanide."

Two years ago the Tigers met in northern Sri Lanka with Olara A. Ottunu, the United Nations official charged with trying to halt the use of an estimated 300,000 child soldiers worldwide. They promised him that they would stop recruiting children under 17 and sending anyone under age 18 into battle. But evidence emerging from the recent carnage in Sri Lanka's 17-year war with the separatist rebels strongly suggests that they have continued using children in their battle to win a homeland for the country's mostly Hindu Tamil minority in the north and east of the country.

Renuka and Malar Arumugam, another 13-year-old girl soldier captured by the army, gave accounts of their years with the Tigers in interviews through an independent Tamil translator. Malar, an orphan who said she was recruited at age 8, remains fiercely loyal to the Tigers, whom she regards as her family. She wept angrily when she spoke of what she called atrocities against Tamils by the Sri Lankan and Indian armies. In contrast, Renuka, who said she left her impoverished family to join the Tigers largely because she was hungry and knew they would feed her, wants nothing more to do with the rebels. The Tigers refused to let her see her parents, and she believes that the rebel fighters abandoned her when she was wounded in battle.

The girls' stories could not be independently verified, though their wounds and scars were consistent with their accounts, as were the circumstances of their confinement. Army officials, happy to score propaganda points against the Tigers, readily agreed to allow Renuka, still in their custody, to be interviewed. Her last name was withheld by The New York Times out of concern that the rebels would punish her for turning against them. A district magistrate in Jaffna permitted an interview with Malar, who unlike Renuka is still a true Tiger believer. Captured in July, she is now in judicial custody and is incarcerated in the rundown jail in Jaffna. Officials stood listening to both interviews.

One other thing also suggests that the Tigers are using child soldiers: the youthfulness of the rebel dead found after a Sept. 3 battle here on the Jaffna peninsula. Six of the 36 dead rebels whose bodies were picked up by the Sri Lankan Army and returned to the Tigers appeared to have been girls between ages 12 and 16, said an international official who inspected them, but asked that the organization not be identified to preserve its ability to function in Jaffna. Officials at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital, where the bodies were taken, declined to comment, but a hospital worker who saw the dead said, "Most of them were young, but you can't say whether they were 12, 14 16, 18 or 20. They were small-made."

For the past year, human rights groups have alleged that the Tigers are still using child soldiers. In July, the United Teachers for Human Rights in Jaffna charged that the rebel group was rounding up an increasing number of boys and girls in its push to retake the Jaffna peninsula, a northern spit of land that had long been its stronghold. The United States has classified the Tigers as a terrorist organization, but Canada and Great Britain, with substantial Tamil communities, have not banned the group, which raises money from the nearly one million Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad.

A man who identified himself as A. Shanthan, in the group's London branch, said he was not a spokesman for the organization and could not comment on the girls' stories. He said he would try to get an answer to faxed questions in coming days, though it was difficult for him to reach Tiger leaders in Sri Lanka. The girls' stories had much in common, though Renuka was timid and softspoken, while Malar was defiant and angry. Both said they came from poor backgrounds, joined the Tigers without telling their families and received heavy indoctrination and arms training in Tiger camps.

Renuka hobbled out of the detention center, dressed in a polka-dotted hospital gown. She whimpered as she lowered herself into a chair shaded by a tree in the parking lot. Doctors had operated the day before to remove shrapnel from her chest. She said she grew up in the desolate northern reaches of the country known as the Wanni. Her father was unemployed and she, her sister and her parents survived on the bit of money a relative in Colombo sent them every now and then. Often they went hungry.

Tiger soldiers came to her school every month on recruiting drives from the time she was in the 6th grade, she said. The children were gathered in the school's main hall as men and women in battle fatigues told them it was their duty to join the Tigers and help save the Tamil people from the approaching Sri Lankan army. One day when she was in the 7th grade, Renuka told her parents she was going shopping, but instead went to a Tiger camp. She was hungry, she said, "and we all knew that they give meals."

As it turned out, she was well fed, but said she quickly regretted her choice. She pleaded to see her parents, but was told she could only have a visit after she had fought on the front lines. During the next two years, she said she and many other children were drilled in the Tiger view of history, the Tiger vision of a Tamil homeland and the Tiger cult of martyrdom. They learned to lob a grenade and dive for cover and to fire a machine gun on the run. She was assigned to an all-female fighting group and dispatched a month ago to a battlefront east of the city of Jaffna. Early in the morning of Sept. 3, the Sri Lankan army began a deafening assault. Thousands of rounds of mortar fire rained down. Within hours, everyone in her sentry post was dead except her. "The L.T.T.E. took me," she said of the Tamil rebel group. "They didn't let me see my parents. When I was injured, they didn't come to help me. I ask myself, `Who are they?' "

Unlike Renuka, Malar, her short, curly hair pulled back by a headband, said she is still a true believer. According to her account, she was born in the Mannar district in northwestern Sri Lanka. Her father died of a heart attack when she was 3 and her mother went into the hospital when she was 6 and never returned. She moved in with her uncle, an unmarried farm laborer. Often, they had little to eat, she said. When she was 8, she said, a woman from the Tigers came and told her the rebels would educate and care for her. "I thought it was better to go with the L.T.T.E. sister because of our poverty," she said. "I also wanted to contribute to freedom."

She was trained with 50 other girls, most of them orphans like her. They underwent years of ideological indoctrination in Tiger schools. She once caught a glimpse of the secretive, reclusive rebel leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and said, "We treat him as our god." Last year, at age 12, she volunteered to go to war. "I wanted to save the country," she said. She was eventually sent to the eastern coast of the Jaffna peninsula, carting a Chinese- made submachine gun.

In July, during a routine sweep, army soldiers tossed a grenade into her bunker. "Eleven of us girls were in the bunker," she said as hot angry tears streaked down her cheeks. "Ten died in front of me. The military removed the girls' clothes and fired rounds into the bodies." She lives now in a jail cell with Dayalani Balasubramaniam, 22, who joined the jailhouse conversation to say she had become a Tiger cadre when she was 16. The young woman held out her warped hands, the fingers curving at odd angles. She said soldiers had broken the bones with batons and left the fingers to heal without setting them. Human rights groups say the torture of rebel suspects is not uncommon.

The girl and the young woman, sharing a dark, dank cell, seemed to bolster each other's resolve to stay true to the cause. With their jailers listening, Miss Balasubramaniam declared she was still worked up to fight because of the army's bombing and shelling. Malar fiercely echoed her words. "I feel the same," she said.


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